Samantha Lewthwaite was captured on CCTV footage as recently as this year but the police’s crime intelligence unit failed to act, writes Jacques Pauw.
The woman dubbed the “white widow” was seen in South Africa as recently as this year conducting surveillance on foreign embassies in Pretoria.
The information about the presence in the country of Samantha Lewthwaite – the suspected mastermind behind the massacre in Kenya’s Westgate shopping centre – was passed on to the police’s crime intelligence unit.
But the dysfunctional unit appears to have failed to conduct any surveillance and track her down.
Between January and February this year, British citizen Lewthwaite (29) was caught on closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in Arcadia, Pretoria, watching several foreign embassies.
City Press understands the British High Commission was one.
This is the first time it has been revealed that Lewthwaite was in the country as recently as this year.
At a press conference on Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor said Lewthwaite entered the country for the first time in 2008 and for the last time in February 2011.
It was previously understood that she was long gone.
This week, Lewthwaite became one of the world’s most wanted people after Interpol issued a warrant for her arrest.
Interpol says Lewthwaite has links to Somali Islamist organisation al-Shabaab.
It issued an internationally wanted persons alert, also known as a red notice, for her at the Kenyan government’s request.
She is wanted on explosives and conspiracy charges dating back to 2011.
Unconfirmed reports have placed Lewthwaite at the centre of the al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate centre in Nairobi, which left at least 72 people dead and at least 175 injured. She is the widow of Germaine Lindsay, one of the 2005 London suicide bombers.
The real Natalie Webb
Pandor said Lewthwaite obtained an authentic South African passport by fraudulently using the identity of Natalie Faye Webb.
City Press understands that the real Webb has a South African mother and lives in the UK, which allowed Lewthwaite to obtain the passport through a fraudulent late-registration-of-birth process.
The passport, which was issued in Durban, was legitimate, but the supporting documents used to obtain it were not.
Lewthwaite left South Africa in February 2011 on the same passport.
It was cancelled later that year following a Home Affairs investigation.
It is not known how she got back into the country.
City Press established this week that the State Security Agency (SSA), working with the Hawks’ crimes against the state unit, formed a task team to establish Lewthwaite’s whereabouts as well as her links to local Islamic extremists.
There is also a possibility that she could still be in possession of one or more fraudulently obtained South African passports, because consumer records show she was active in the country last May.
But crime intelligence has, since earlier this year, been in possession of intelligence showing Lewthwaite was captured on CCTV cameras in Arcadia.
How the intelligence came to light
City Press has established that the Jewish Community Security Organisation (CSO) was warned by a foreign intelligence agency that Lewthwaite was here and posed a threat to their community.
City Press was told the foreign intelligence agency was Israel’s Mossad and the British High Commission in Pretoria was specifically mentioned.
CSO is a controversial and clandestine security organisation that protects Jewish South Africans against crime, terrorism and anti-Semitism.
The CSO is closely aligned to the country’s largest private law enforcement agency, SSG Specialised Services Group, which operates across Africa.
The company has close links to several intelligence agencies, including Mossad and the police’s crime intelligence unit.
CSO reported their intelligence information regarding Lewthwaite to SSG. A photograph of her was also circulated among its members.
SSG executives, who spoke to City Press this week on condition of anonymity, described the intelligence as “highly credible” although “not yet verified”.
They said the information emanated from an intelligence agency that received it from an embassy.
They confirmed the intelligence was passed to crime intelligence by the company’s CEO, Warren Goldblatt.
Goldblatt was not available for comment.
Afrikaans daily Beeld reported on Tuesday that unconfirmed al-Shabaab tweets identified Pretoria as a rendezvous point for two of the groups of mujahideen (Islamic militants) involved in the Nairobi attack.
Institute for Security Studies analyst Annelie Botha reportedly said al-Shabaab confirmed to her that South Africa was used as a base for their operations.
“The main reason why al-Shabaab has not launched attacks here is because SA is a convenient hiding place where they can easily obtain false IDs and passports,” she reportedly said.
But crime intelligence insiders told City Press this week that the Lewthwaite intelligence was never discussed at any briefings and was probably never acted on.
SSG executives also told City Press that they were in contact with Pandor’s office this week to help with the investigation into how Lewthwaite got her South African passport.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale declined to comment on the matter, referring City Press to the SSA.
SSA spokesperson Brian Dube said they could neither confirm nor deny “this particular report”, adding that they have to protect their sources and methods.
Neither Home Affairs nor the British High Commission responded to requests for comment.